JANACEK: String Quartet No. 1 “The Kreutzer Sonata;” String Quartet No. 2 “Intimate Pages;” SCHULHOFF: String Quartet No. 1 – Talich Quartet – Calliope

by | Apr 25, 2006 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

JANACEK: String Quartet No. 1 “The Kreutzer Sonata;” String Quartet No. 2 “Intimate Pages;” SCHULHOFF: String Quartet No. 1 – Talich Quartet – Calliope CAL 9333 (Distr. Harmonia mundi),  57:06 ****:

It was the aging Leos Janacek’s ardor for Kamila Stoesslova which inspired his two string quartets; the First in 1923, the Second in 1928.  For the First Quartet, Janacek chose as his guiding principle the novella by Leo Tolstoy which depicts the anguish of an illicit, fatal passion. The sound world Janacek creates is vibrant and eerie at once: there as many buzzing and modal explosions as there are plaintive melodies. Smetana’s From My Life is close in spirit, and Janacek’s musical syntax pushes the extremities of emotional anguish as far, except that instead of the disruptions of deafness and ensuing madness, we have a drama of sin and redemption – Janacek’s answer to Schoenberg’s Verklaerte Nacht.

The Second Quartet, composed in the white-hot inspiration of three weeks, is a testament to Janacek’s unrequited yearning for Kamila, a nervous melancholy marked by the tight, stinted use of intervals which only cede harmonic space in the passionate final Allegro. Both mournful and energetic, the music is typical of Janacek’s mature style, an admixture of Slavic plainchant, Debussy, Moravian doxology, and Smetana. Conflicting impulses, rising and falling scales, permeate its four movements. The level of part writing is intensely demanding: Janacek conceived his masterpieces for the Bohemian Quartet, the same ensemble whom conductor Vaclav Talich took as his model for the Czech Philharmonic sound.  Quatour Talich plays with an ardor that does not diminish throughout the two quartets’ uncanny intensities. Alternately feverish–perhaps neurasthenic–and idiosyncratically lyrical, these are gripping inscriptions of beauty charged with hints of madness and flowers of evil.

Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942) has only begun to attract attention and admirers in the past decade. His own pedagogy combines Czech and German models, although Debussy once again proves a substantive influence. In Paris and in Weimar Germany Schulhoff absorbed a great deal of jazz, so his music, like that of Weill and Krenek, is a distillation of what was then perceived as decadent effects. The 1924 First Quartet uses Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony or the Mahler Ninth as models, placing the slow movement last. In tight classical sonata-form, the first three movements proceed as a mix of Slavonic impulses and concentrated means. The Allegro giocoso alla slovacca pays debts to Dvorak and to Bartok’s irreverence.  The last, somber movement sounds even today experimental in character, tormented and wry, as if Kafka composed music. The relatively brief work communicates a fleet color virtuosity, abuzz with repeated notes, slides, and chugging rhythms fertilized by pizzicati. But there is a delicacy in the musical tissue, too, an urge to simplicity which compels our attention; some of the stringendo effects hint at Villa-Lobos. Had not the Nazi terror consumed Schulhoff, he would have likely evolved into a major spokesman for cosmopolitan, Eastern-European values.

–Gary Lemco

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